Radicalisation in London: The UK’s Counter-Extremism Policy in Spotlight

Recent news events have led to a renewed focus on the UK’s counter-extremism initiatives and its broader counter-terrorism policy. Firstly, the news that three female teenage school students had left their London homes to travel to Syria to join so-called Islamic State (IS) fighters in mid-February has done much to focus attention on the global pull that the radical Islamist group is able to exert across borders. Whilst the recent unmasking of an IS member who has appeared in multiple videos released by the IS depicting the beheadings of Western hostages as someone who appears to have spent most of his childhood in London has similarly drawn attention to the ways in which young people are increasingly being drawn to radical terrorist groups.

Image courtesy of Gnikiaris © 2008, some rights reserved

Image courtesy of Gnikiaris © 2008, some rights reserved

The growth of transnational terrorist organisations and the ways in which radical ideologies increasingly permeate across state borders are perhaps some of the most salient features of an international political system taking on an increasing globalised trajectory. Against this background, counter-terrorism has become a central aspect of states’ defence and security policies.

The UK’s current counter-terrorism strategy known as ‘CONTEST’ originates from 2003 and is in its third re-formulation following the publication of its latest version in 2011 after the election of the new coalition government. As a strategy, it is made up of four-streams governing different aspects of the British governmental response to terrorism. These are: ‘Pursue’, aimed at preventing terrorist attacks through policing and enforcement measures both domestic and overseas; ‘Prevent’, a counter-extremism and radicalisation programme aimed at preventing people from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism; ‘Protect’, aimed at strengthening protection against and reducing vulnerability to a terrorist action; and ‘Prepare’, aimed at mitigating the potential impact of a terrorist action.

With the growth of ‘home-grown’ terrorists, again perhaps one of the most new unique features of the ‘New Wars’ characteristics of violence in the globalised international political system, the ‘Prevent’ strategy has risen to prominence within UK policy-maker circles as the best and most effective way of dealing with the terrorist threat.

‘Prevent’, the UK’s counter-extremism strategy, has evolved since its initial formation in the immediate aftermath of the London Underground bombings in 2005. In common with many unwieldy government ‘built by committee’ programmes, ‘Prevent’ itself has been dogged by quarrels and infighting stemming from disagreements over its exact purpose and structure. Upon its formation in 2005, cabinet ministers even disagreed over its name: with Hazel Blears favouring the more expansive ‘Prevent: Preventing Extremism’ against then Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and Chancellor Gordon Brown who favoured a more narrow: ‘Preventing Violent Extremism’.[1] This initial disagreement was perhaps portentous and illustrative of the wider issues and debates between a thin versus thick conception of counter-extremism lying at the heart of Euro-American counter-radicalisation strategy currently.

The ‘Prevent’ strategy in its current form has three central objectives at its heart: ‘1). respond to the ideological challenge of terrorism and the threat we face from those who promote it; 2). prevent people from being drawn into terrorism and ensure that they are given appropriate advice and support; and 3). work with sectors and institutions where there are risks of radicalisation which we need to address’.[2]

In policy-making parlance and popular discussions about terrorism today, the notion of ‘radicalisation’ has become increasingly prominent to describe the ways in which individuals are ‘drawn’ into terrorist organisations. In this context, the term is used to describe the process through which individuals are said to gradually adopt increasingly extreme socio-political beliefs and goals, which go against the established status quo and sometimes lead to the adoption of violence to achieve these goals. The 2009 formulation of CONTEST defines radicalisation as ‘the process by which people come to support violent extremism and, in some cases, join terrorist groups’. [3]

With an increased number of young Britons travelling to join IS fighters in Syria, the second and third objectives of the ‘Prevent’ strategy aimed at preventing those seen as vulnerable to radicalisation from being drawn into terrorism have become a central focus of British counter-terrorist strategy. A central component of these attempts at preventing ‘radicalisation’ has been the flagship ‘Channel’ programme. This is a dedicated counter-radicalisation intervention programme aimed primarily at 15-24 year olds. As a multi-agency programme, it sees a number of agencies ranging from the police and prison/probation service to schools and social and health services liaising with each other to identify those seen to be at risk of ‘radicalisation’. There is a dedicated police practitioner who is responsible for coordinating the ‘Channel’ programme and for liaising between these various statutory and local authorities. Once referred to ‘Channel’, the individuals then enter into a screening process to assess their level of vulnerability to ‘radicalisation’ based on their engagement with a violent extremist ideology coupled with their intent and ability to cause harm.[4] If they are judged to be vulnerable to radicalisation they then join ‘Channel’ and receive intensive one-on-one mentoring aimed at ‘deprogramming’ and encouraging them to disengage from the perceived extremist ideology. The mentoring takes the form of informal, intensive weekly meetings of up to two hours combined with an additional tailored package of support ranging from health and housing to education to anger-management courses. Whilst the majority of those referred to ‘Channel’ are seen at risk of being drawn into Islamist extremist terrorism, interestingly, a significant proportion (10 per cent) of those referred to ‘Channel’ are referred due to involvement with extremist far-right groups in the UK.

Ultimately, the success of ‘Prevent’ and ‘Channel’ are hard to quantify. However, with the increasing pull of the conflict in Syria coupled with the threat posed by those gradually returning from fighting there, they are frequently becoming one of the main tools used by the British government to combat the perceived terrorist theat. In many ways, the initial disagreements over Prevent’s name and strategy revealed fault lines within policy-making circles regarding counter-extremism efforts which are still of central prominence today. Ultimately, these disagreements tap into a wider debate between a thin versus thick conception of counter-extremism. Simply, whether counter-extremism/radicalisation efforts should be focused solely on countering violent extremism, or whether there should be a greater effort at combating any forms of political extremism which run contra to conventional ‘British’ values of plurality and free-choice. This debate will rumble on, but again, it remains to be seen which approach is the most effective.


[1] http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/jun/08/infighting-gove-home-office-extremists

[2] https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/97976/prevent-strategy-review.pdf

[3] http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20100418065544/http://security.homeoffice.gov.uk/news-publications/publication-search/contest/contest-strategy/contest-strategy-2009?view=Binary

[4] https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/118194/channel-guidance.pdf